The European Commission, faced with four angry member states claiming foods of lower quality are being sold in their countries compared to in neighbouring markets, has announced its support for measures to ensure consumers are not misled – but stopped short of proposing changes to EU legislation.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the Commission’s President, on Thursday (27 July) met Robert Fico, the Prime Minister of Slovakia, one of four countries, alongside Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, that have complained multinational food companies are selling products of different quality in their markets.

At the meeting, the Commission pledged to present new specific guidance to consumer authorities on how to identify illegal practices under current EU legislation.

The Commission said it would develop guidelines with its Joint Research Centre for “a robust harmonised methodology” to test food quality across the EU and to have comparable data.

Brussels said it would continue talks that started last week with manufacturers and retailers on “how to concretely solve this issue together”.
However, a Commission spokesperson underlined Brussels “has so far not committed to changing any legislation, but to provide guidance on the existing legislation”.

The spokesperson added: “Of course producers and retailers are free to sell different products as long as they respect all legal requirements. The issue is, however, that they may not mislead consumers, giving the impression that a product is of the same quality when it is not.”

In a press conference following the meeting between Juncker and Fico, the Commission President said: “The Commission is very committed to find solutions. This is a European issue. There are no second category citizens in Europe.

“I submitted to the mediation of the Prime Minister all the initiatives the European Commission has taken in that regard and we will pursue our common intention to put an end to this discriminatory way of providing the Slovak people with food products and other goods of a less[er] quality. This is totally unacceptable and the Commission is working together with the Slovak Prime Minister in that direction.

“I do think that the Commission has to be supportive, although the substantial responsibility is with national food safety authorities. But we are trying to offer comparison-elements. The Commission is the only institution able to do that. And as far as this point is concerned we are swimming in the very same direction – Slovakia, the Prime Minister, the Commissioner, myself. You will not be disappointed.”

Food manufacturers have defended the practice, saying countries have different tastes and insisting ingredients are listed accurately.